A New Generation of Bartenders Mixes Things Up
Michelin chefs are no longer turning to sommeliers to man the cocktail menu. They’re importing a new generation of bartenders to mix things up
By Mark Ellwood
Jan. 21, 2016
FRENCH CHEF ALAIN DUCASSE recently debuted his latest two establishments-Rivea and Skyfall Lounge-inside the newly renovated Delano hotel, in Las Vegas. He hired Bruno Riou, a fellow Frenchman, as the executive chef to oversee the kitchens, but he also tapped an additional talent for the team: mixologist David Kaplan, who helms esteemed cocktail joints in New York and Los Angeles, including Death + Company, Nitecap and Honeycut. Ducasse didn’t hesitate to cede control of the cocktail menus in both venues to Kaplan and his partners, Alex Day and Devon Tarby, as he explains: “Like many chefs, the new generation of bartenders is bringing the same way of thinking about things-seasonally, artisanally-and evolving the classics with a new twist.”
Kaplan’s imprint is evident throughout both venues. In the restaurant Rivea, the barkeeps have devised an abbreviated menu to complement the Michelin maestro’s food, featuring aperitifs such as the Beausoleil, based around the chef’s favorite, limoncello (“Ducasse is part run on limoncello,” Kaplan jokes). In the Skyfall Lounge, there’s a more extensive cocktail offering, including a house list with the Sierra Aperitivo-Aperol, orange juice and vodka topped with a slug of champagne.
Skyfall embraces the Vegas custom of bottle service, but with the inventiveness that regulars have come to expect from Kaplan. Guests can summon a bottle of whiskey, and it arrives with a ready-made Old Fashioned syrup of Demerara and bitters; or a bottle of chef Ducasse’s preferred vodka, Grey Goose, is served with the house-made cosmopolitan mix.
Such a partnership, where a Michelin chef entrusts the bar to an outside mixologist of equal caliber, is a growing trend. Much the same idea steered Danny Meyer while he prepped his first high-end foray in Chicago, which opened in September on the 18th floor of a Streeterville skyscraper downtown. The bar program at GreenRiver, his 190-seat restaurant, is led by Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry, the expat Irishmen behind New York’s Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog, which was recently named best bar in the world by its peers at the drinks festival Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans.
The shift is already evident in London as well, where Michelin vet Bruno Loubet (who earned his first star within a year of running his own kitchen at the Inn on the Park) recruited molecular mixology pioneer Tony Conigliaro as drinks master at his produce-driven restaurant, the Grain Store, in the rejuvenated Kings Cross neighborhood. Conigliaro has developed unexpected yet delicious drinks, including a lemon sherbet margarita and a carrot gimlet.
In Las Vegas, Ducasse is also betting on another collaboration: David Kaplan and Bruno Riou are working on an ambitious ongoing project called the Cocktail Dinner Series. Beginning this month, Kaplan and Riou’s team will host a monthly four-course dinner at Rivea, pairing cocktails and dishes co-developed by the chef and barkeeps.
Kaplan is especially proud of the equal emphasis placed on food and drink at Ducasse’s venue. “The fact that someone rooted in both fine dining and the French culinary world is forward-thinking enough to acknowledge that cocktails are a benchmark of quality that any establishment needs,” Kaplan says, “is a testament to where cocktail culture has come today.”